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Australia's 'Iron Lady'?

Nick Bryant | 15:29 UK time, Friday, 11 September 2009

Though she hails from the land of song - Barry in South Wales, to be precise - Julia Gillard possesses possibly the most unmelodious voice in Australian politics. Just as the Australian prime minister speaks fluent Mandarin, his hard-working deputy communicates in a variant of 'Strine, a pinched and nasally dialect with harsh, penetrative qualities.

But a Thatcher-like retooling of her voice box seems underway, and as her speech drops in pitch so her chances of emulating the Iron Lady by becoming a female prime minister in a parliament dominated by men appear to rise.

Out of Kevin Rudd's cabinet, Julia Gillard is almost universally regarded as the most impressive performer. She's become something of a star turn on the opinion-forming current affairs shows, like ABC's 730 Report, Lateline and Insiders. She's a master of the political putdown in parliament, with an almost Keating-like ability to mock and humiliate members of the opposition front bench. The former Labor prime minister used to boast of slow-cooking his political enemies. Ms Gillard tends to favour the blow torch. That makes her a favourite of the Canberra Press Gallery, who no doubt welcome the entertainment.

Recently, she seems to have spent a good deal of time travelling abroad, with trips to Washington, Israel, Iraq, and India, which all seem part of her prime ministerial apprenticeship.

In recent weeks, the conventional wisdom is that she has started making mistakes. She underestimated the costs of the school refurbishments that were a central strand of the Rudd stimulus packages, leading to a budget blow-out of a staggering $A1.7bn ($1.7bn; £880m). Moreover, as Channel Nine's political editor, Laurie Oakes, recently pointed out, she was out of the country during the Ozcar affair, which meant that Kevin Rudd came up with some strong Gillard-like put-downs of his own. According to Oakes, it has restored a measure of parity to their relationship, since Kevin Rudd always looked on his deputy as a superior parliamentary performer.

Few political commentators wield as much clout as Laurie Oakes, and he had this to say of Ms Gillard: "Don't look now, but Saint Julia's halo has slipped. Suddenly, the Deputy Prime Minister's competence is being questioned." But that does have the feel of Canberra chatter, rather than a more widespread impression.

Queensland has already shown, with the tradition-defying election of Anna Bligh, that voters even in one of Australia's more conservative states are prepared to countenance female leaders.

So Julia Gillard remains well placed to shatter the glass ceiling that has so far prevented women from occupying the highest political office in the land. What's more, she can rely on her political talents to do so, rather than the penetrative power of that once-shrill voice.

UPDATES: Thanks for weighing in on the economy. The blog was by no means exhaustive on the reasons for Australia's resilience and many of you advanced other, equally plausible explanations.

BrentfromColumbus asked about the Indian student crisis, and thecamo helped out. Here's an article I've just done on the situation. Already, this is a big story in India, especially, and in FISA, the Federation of Indian Students in Australia, the students have a media-savvy organization which will keep it in the headlines. After coal and iron ore, education is Australia's third biggest export - a remarkable statistic - and what will worry the Australian authorities is the number of Chinese students and Chinese media outlets which have been covering the recent demonstrations.

On the Australian banks, I think they are probably worth a blog all of their own. They are strictly regulated and their balance sheets are in good shape, but as a number of you pointed out they charge what, by international standards, are fairly exorbitant fees, which has put them in a strong position.

As for the Steve Fielding blog, many of you identified what you consider a wider problem with the parliamentary system: the blocking power of the senate. In the "Washminster" form of government, the Anglo-US hybrid, this is definitely a strong "Wash" element. For most of the last century, the US Senate was known for the legislation it blocked rather than the legislation it passed (it took until 1957, for instance, to pass a civil rights act, and then it was a fairly weak measure). That's partly why Ted Kennedy was such a colossus on Capitol Hill. He minted policy ideas into legislation. Again, it's worth another blog, does the Australian parliamentary system need an overhaul to limit the power of individual senators, like Fielding? Or is that just democracy?

I'm actually US-bound for a couple of weeks, but have left behind a blog which was supposed to have appeared earlier in the month on the government plans to rebrand Australia. Given that there was so much Ango-Aussie trashtalk after the Ashes, and that the blog might have sparked more of the same, we decided to hold it over. It will appear over the coming days.

Thanks to all: the regular commenters, the occasional commenters, and, the overwhelming majority, the people who read and leave it at that.

All very best, and speak soon...


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